Tim: Tell me about Secret Lab. What is that about?
Jon: Secret Lab is an iPhone and iPad game dev training and also a mechanism that allows us to sit in an office and do what we like to do all day in an office.
Paris: This is primarily game development and design.
Tim: Now I should say this is in the side of a mountain, is that right? In the side of a mountain, on the side of the mountain? Where does the mountain come in?
Jon: Mostly on, maybe a little bit in.
Paris: On the side of a mountain.
Tim: Just enough to dig in your
Jon: We are based on Mount Wellington, which is the main rocky thing that is on top of Hobart. Which is in Tasmania. Which is in Australia. Which is on this planet.
Tim: Now is that a tech mecca of Australia?
Jon: No. It is actually mostly a tourism destination for the most time because it is like a very very clean, pristine green type of thing. But there is a growing industry of startups there, mostly web, but increasingly games as well.
Paris: It wants to be a tech mecca. It is the first place in Australia, that’s getting an Australia wide rollout of 100 megabit to every premises
Tim: Are you both Tasmanians? How is that you came to establish your business there?
Jon: Well, I was born there, parents moved here.
Paris: I moved from Melbourne, but moved to Tasmania when I was quite young.
Jon: Yeah, and we got into tech; mostly just because of early schooling interest.
Tim: Gaming as a business, how is that?
Jon: Well, I mean, it is always a dream, right? It is always a thing that you want to be into from a very early age. I never actually did any actual game development until maybe it would have been in the mid-2000s, when the iPhone company came out and enabled very rapid distribution of stuff that I made. And Paris joined me.
Paris: The iPhone definitely kick-started our ability to do games without becoming professional game developers.
Tim: Were you programmers though before this?
Jon: Oh yes, yes.
Tim: Okay by training? Or just like that?
Jon: Not really by training, we never really had any formal training.
Paris: We both got computer science degrees, and I have got a history degree.
Jon: But never like formal industry training. It is just what we just fell into. But yeah, the ability to send out content rapidly just didn’t exist in any meaningful sense for us anyway until like 2008.
Tim: But now it has been a lot of independence.
Jon: A colossal amount of independence, yeah. I mean I don’t have to go through a publisher, I don’t have to go through any kind of other middle person, to clear my content. So yeah, it is really really liberating.
Tim: The world of apps, as the unit by which people think of software nowadays, not just a game.
Tim: It is an interesting shift.
Paris: It is yeah. I think the fact that people think of apps as software because of apps it is this really quick consumable thing, they can download it anywhere for any reason.
Tim: Not much software anymore that people think of as, I am going to spend five hundred bucks, unless you want to go up in the same
Jon: It is only professional level stuff, and even that’s falling in prices as well. Look at Logic 10 that came out, I think it was like three days ago, and that’s 200. And that would’ve been selling for 1500 a few years ago.
Tim: So we are sitting here at OSCON in Oregon, you guys have come here all the way from Australia. Why are you here? Explain a little bit your presence here. And what has the world of open source has to do with game development?
Paris: We are really enjoying the conference. It is like home in Australia we just spent a lot at Linux from Australia, OCA, which is one of the big open source conferences like OSCON. It is a lot smaller, but it is still pretty big. I think the open source community particularly the community that comes to OSCON is really creative diverse and an interesting community. And creativity’s intersection with technology and programming is really what gaming design, and game development is all about. So this community really fits in with the sort of things that we like to think about and talk about. That’s why we found ourselves here every year for the past few years.
Tim: You gave a presentation, because I saw it about working on the creativity behind games.
Tim: Is creativity something that can be instilled?
Jon: I absolutely think that it can be instilled. It has come to be thing that people say you either have it or you don’t. That’s not true. I think creativity is absolutely a learned skill. It is a series of patterns of thought and a matter of observation.
Paris: And while I completely agree it is a learned skill, I also find that we often take a workshop where we talk to people about building apps, and building games and like how I am not creative enough, I don’t think like that; and then five minutes later, they are like, “I’ve got this idea for a game I’ve been thinking about for the last five years, and I need to figure out how to build this”. He was definitely creative, he just didn’t know it.
Tim: The famous thing about inventions, or patent administrators
Jon: There has been when you think of it, yeah, yeah.
Tim: Clearly with games, there are certain controls, there are certain sort of paradigms.
Jon: Yeah, patterns, design patterns, really for just game play. Yeah, yeah, there is a lot of repetition in the game industry, and when I say game industry, I don’t necessarily mean professional games, I mean all sorts of people who just crank out games for their own amusement. That’s okay. And there’s always room for experimentation within certain fields, for examples, Minecraft kind of changes what people think of that, the first person shooter.
Paris: I think there’s more repetition in the AAA blockbuster in the game industry, they figured out they can make a blockbuster game every six months. It is falling into the same pattern as Hollywood.
Jon: Yeah, every year there is anew Call of Duty. And that’s great. Because it is a really consistent easily monetized platform to produce more stuff off it.
Paris: There is actually nothing wrong with Call of Duty. It is the big cheesy action movie equivalent. They are entertaining for four or five hours.
Jon: It is a summer movie.
Tim: But in the indie world.
Jon: So in the indie world, one Call of Duty, and similar games like it, are viewed with very slight contempt, you know, it is oh yeah, yeah, big media. But it is also seen as I wish I could power enough artists to make it look that pretty.
Paris: I think for most indies, if they have the ability, would make a giant art team, and a giant team to build a game of the scale of Call of Duty, if they could. They often feel like they want to do that, but can’t. Which is why they are going to be indies.
Jon: I mean we are completely generalizing.
Paris: That’s my feeling.
Jon: Yeah, for me independent game production is very much more about:
1. I want to express some idea that I have had and see how it plays up.
2. I want to be able to buy food. Which is a much more pressing issue for someone who isn’t a large corporation than it is for
Tim: Again, so things like the App Store mean people can turn instantly their idea into a
Jon: Right, the fact that I don’t have to have a huge run-up, and really if I carefully minimize risk and get up there, it means that I can very quickly toss them and I could really get something out there.
Tim: Secret Lab has been around for a few years now. How has it been as an independent game company founders? What have you found? What kind of pitfalls have they struck?
Paris: I think the biggest pitfall is the consistent availability of operating losses.
Jon: Oh yeah.
Paris: Because we are not artists. We often pretend we are but we are not artists.
Jon: Yeah, we are mostly programmers
Paris: and designers.
Jon: And also business admins, because we have to because
Paris: everything but artists
Tim: Well, if you can find artists to work with, it’s surely by remote?
Jon: It is very easy to find companies who are offering outsourced art services. It is much much harder to find people that you want to work with on a couple of little projects. So if you know exactly what you want to make – that’s great. If you want to experiment with a bunch of ideas, and see what happens, that’s harder to find. But it is often what you need.
Tim: Also talk about, besides making games, you both are engaged in the practice of educating people about programming and about games in general, how to come up with ideas. Talk about that. What is that, how does that fall into your roles as game developers? Does that make you better game developers? Does it take up your time that you would rather spend that way?
Jon: I like to think so.
Paris: It definitely doesn’t take up our time of things we’d rather be doing. We enjoy it.
Jon: It is what we enjoy doing.
Paris: I think it makes us better game developers, because it causes us to think about techniques we use to make games in a very conscious way, which we might not do otherwise. There’s the maxim that teaching something makes you a better at it, and it obviously does in this case, I think. The more we think about it, the better we get. And then more ideas feed into both games making and teaching in the future.
Jon: Yeah. Also because of the fact that when we give classes and train people, based on what we know, it gets blended with what they already knew, and that is a way to teach people, but also people ask questions, and almost always in these kinds of classes it is a very much a creative type of topic that’s being discussed, they will come up with creative questions to ask that we often can never anticipate. And that forces us to reevaluate what we are doing. And how we approach it. Which is always good.
Tim: Between the conference theme here at Open Source, and making money by selling software, how do manage that gap, if there is one?
Jon: We open source a lot of stuff. We have a bunch of libraries that are on at GitHub. We don’t release the source code to our finished products very often, but when we do, we always enjoy it. I don’t really see there being very much of a competition between us releasing open source software and us as actually making money, because the majority of all our revenue comes from doing client work. At least it has lately.
Paris: The majority of client work we do, we end up with one plus library element to release open source. And we try to do that as often as we can.
Tim: And that is the same thing a lot of companies, the same answer is to Red Hat.
Tim: So they release code, but they do a lot of work that people won’t pay for.
Jon: Yeah, and for us, we aren’t a very code centric company. We don’t consider our product to be the software that runs. We consider the product to be a combination of both code and art and other stuff, so the whole ethos of making sure everything is open and transparent and available, while that’s certainly applicable to some degree, it doesn’t really make much sense for us to say, oh all the art is free, so you can make a variation on our game. Because a game is a work on its own. And sometimes it doesn’t really make much sense for it to be forked, unless you deliberately design it to be forked.
Tim: And there’s the part that someone has put effort that they reproduce it to look different, from reproducing the working code, that affects something.
Paris: One of the gaming that we often built into is called Unity, it is a commercial game, and it has an asset store built in, which operates the same way as the App Store in Google Marketplace, and so on. And you can buy it pretty main assets, often art, but also code and build games from them. And one of the problems comes from that. And I really love the Asset Store, the only problem is that there is a lot of queer kind of games that come out with the same first person shooter pack because they bought the same pack – they built the game on top of it – they have legitimately created their own game, but it looks the same as everyone is doing, the problem that we face it we can’t find visual artists, maybe there is just one guy, maybe even a teenager building the games, and he has the same problem, because their exposure to the game industry is like ____11:42 which like everyone else might get disheartened
Jon: Everyone uses the same terrain textures, and you think, oh is ____11:48 again. Yeah. I mean it is a similar problem on the higher end as well. If you look at pretty much any game these days, you can pick, after about 5 seconds of game play, which engine they used.
Paris: You should be able to do that. It is a bit sad.
Jon: Yeah, any source engine game tends to feel they don’t look the same, they don’t play the same, they are very different games, but you can feel.
Tim: Something about the cadence of it?
Jon: Right exactly. And Real Engine has a similar thing, and as I just mentioned Unity as well.
Paris: ____12:14 and everything was shiny because they put something to make everything shiny.
Tim: Maybe that’s why so many independent games are more about the ideas behind it?
Jon: Right, but it is also things like everybody uses the same input engine, which means that the weight of the game where we actually play input is the same, and so that creates a very very subtle, subconscious game feel. There is a fantastic book written by Steve Swink called Game Feel, that is about this kind of sensation that players get as a result of interacting with the system.
Tim: Without trying to steal all your business, for people who couldn’t be here at OSCON, this time around, talk a little about the way the games are made. How do you come up with and make it a powerful game, do you start with, what the rules are? Do you start with ____13:01 in the end? How do you create it?
Jon: The best way to start is to first of all, have some kind of feeling that you want your players to have. It isn’t even necessarily about oh I want to have this game where you are a space station, really you tend to approach it from I want to have a game where a player can build something and feel powerful while doing it. And then you can actually work backwards from there. Now often, you have at the same time, this fantastic concept, maybe even the beginnings of a narrative, but for the game itself, the thing that the player interacts with, you want to start from some kind of emotion or feeling or some kind of reaction that you want the player to have. Once you have that, you can work backwards – well, now that I know that I want people to feel like they are working in a team, and that they are building things, and they get powerful, I know that people who work in a team will do so because the game’s rules force them to cooperate. So I start building out rules about okay, well I will allow people, say to have some kind of resource that they can only get when they are in physical proximity to some other player. And that as a result is going to force people be near each other, and that is going to cause people to change the way they play.
Paris: One of the things that we talk about in our workshops and this is definitely from the MDA framework and one should Google that – LeBlanc, Hunicke and Zubek. And the things that they state is that the game is experienced starting with the esthetics, how it feels, what they perceive, and it goes backwards into the rules. Whereas developers and designers start at the other end, and they work from the rules down to the esthetics. So I used to switch their mindsets when you are thinking about this thing. If you are designing a game, you can obviously start with the esthetics and work backwards, but at some point, you can start from the other end as well.
Tim: But these are all things you integrate to play into every game you make or do some of them kind of pop as a complete idea?
Jon: Sometimes there are game rules or mechanics that I really really like and I want to see how to play that in different ways – building games, most building games are pretty much the same especially after Minecraft where you have blocks and you can put them together and have different effects. Garry’s Mod which was model of Half Life 2 where players could assemble not blocks but individual props like doors or pieces of cars, they have the same mechanics, people have these things and they can put them together. So I do find that I keep going back to similar ideas, and there are other games that I do a very similar thing like Sid Meier is everything on the idea of provide a really really big open world, that provides a turn based way to work through it, and provides four main ways like exploration, exploitation, discovery, and the other one that I forget. There are definitely rules that I keep wanting to put in different games and in different ways.
Tim: Do you see game rules around you in the world when you walk do you?
Paris: All the time. I think all the world resembles a game, when you start staring at theory of game design too long.
Tim: It must be hard to go into a store, and not want to turn every action into a point based routine?
Jon: Actually you start seeing the way that the game rules or that is, the way that the game is priced or promoting their products affect you as a customer. Because when you start playing with game rules, the game rules on their own are not enough. You also have the way that those rules interact with each other, and the way that the players interact with the rules. And the way we approach for games, it treats that as what we call dynamics, so just the relationship between those things. And when you start noticing that oh okay, people are avoiding this area for some reasons like what’s causing that, what are the rules, what are the stimuli that keep people from doing that.
Paris: Distributed knowledge getting manifested in a way.
Jon: Right exactly.
Paris: Lot like when we actually play a board game or a computer game, it is something hard to switch off and not trying to think about why the rules are doing what they are doing.
Tim: Do you design noncomputer games as well?
Paris: Not commercially, but yes.
Jon: It is a lot faster to make a board game prototype than it is to make a computer game prototype. At least one that doesn’t feel like a ____17:26 I can crank out an FPS in five minutes because I have a template, but it is going to feel like any other ____17:32 feel like it is a definitely different thing to play with.
Tim: What players make up for ____17:42 imagination.
Jon: It is for the players to have to look for. That is one of the reasons why a board game is so effective.
Tim: You are using computers.
Jon: Right exactly. And people’s imagination fills in the gaps.
Tim: As people who have also been educating others, not just making and selling games, do you ever see games made by your clients, your students that you are happy with?
Paris: We often get students that come back and show us the app for the game. And usually we are really happy with them. It is great that they go off and do something better than we can do. They have more time to work on it, and if they spend more time than we do, and that gets somewhere.
Jon: Got everybody around doing training
Tim: ____18:18 beginning you mentioned is true, a lot of people see working in the games industry as something that they really want to do, it is like the Hollywood of the computer world or I guess Hollywood it is still the Hollywood of the computer world, too, but if you wanted to be in the games world, what are some things that you would point them if someone naively came up and said that is my field of interest, I want to be in that world.
Paris: Regardless of which element of the games industry they want to be in, a lot of it is the same as any technical industry, there is a lot of programming, there is a lot of QA people and so on, but broadly they need a portfolio before they even attempt to get a real job. If they don’t want to get a real job, maybe they should start in a studio like ours. But if they want to get a real job, they need a massive portfolio. It is slightly depressing but the fact of it is, the big companies won’t hire you unless you are the best of the best. And at the game development conferences, you see lines and lines of students with portfolios that look amazing, going up to like Activision and big companies, and they hand them in, and they get turned away. And these things look amazing. Like they look faultless to my eyeand then they get turned away. Because finally they are not good enough.
Jon: And that’s only because there is a such huge amount of surplus talent. If you want to make games, the best thing to do, and this sounds really glib, but the best way is to start making games on your own. And so I would say, if you have any interest or talent in programming then go grab a copy of Unity. If you have any interest in doing animation, grab a copy of Blender. And start making something. Just so that you can show people. Because even if it isn’t good enough for a portfolio eventually then it is enough to show people and get feedback.
Tim: It is amazing, how many of these tools either now are or looks like they may become free. So many of them, like Blender has been around.
Paris: It is free and open source. Unity is free. That’s enough right there to make a really good game.
Tim: Is anything about operating in Tasmania not as Tasmania per se, but it is small place distant from Los Angeles and Tokyo; how does that affect what you do as
Jon: It is actually interesting because Tasmania is an island that is separate from Australia already. So whenever we want to go and visit any of the other states in Australia, we have to fly out.
Paris: We are already isolated from the forward 5 million people cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Well, we have to go somewhere anyway. I think it is actually nice to be in Tasmania, because I don’t say this to denigrate the big places like Silicon Valley and Los Angeles but it is not an echo chamber where people are talking about this stuff ultimately, so people actually listen to what you say without analyzing or overlaying their own meaning, of what they really think you mean when you talk to them about something, because it is not necessarily the thing that they hear every day. Whereas in San Francisco, or Los Angeles and anywhere else, it is the same thing that
Jon: I think it is also good that because there are fewer people in this industry, in our area, everyone is a lot more supportive. Because there are not just as many people who are nearby to talk to. And yeah it makes it a really pleasant experience. No one is really competing with anybody. I mean that is true of indie games anyway, because everyone is really super nice.
Tim: Tasmania has a university, and a pleasant place to be.
Jon: Right exactly, it is supposed to be a very very large college town.
Paris: And soon to have very good internet. Which will solve our major problem which is upload speed.
Tim: That is because of the national broadband.
Jon: That’s right, yes.
Tim: And when you say soon, what is the timetable that it will
Paris: It is partially in most of whereabouts where we live than anywhere else, it will be the first state completed in Australia.
Jon: Yeah. That’s the biggest problem. If I had to point out one issue, it wouldn’t be transport or face to face, because there is Skype and such, but we have a maximum upload speed of 100 kbps and our business in creating very very large files and transmitting them over the net. Often several times a day.
Paris: We have been regularly put in the ridiculous position of having to use a 4G USB stick for the computer to upload a file, because the 4G network is faster than any wide connection you get in the state.
Tim: Which, if you are just the user, that doesn’t sound so great, you are the ones creating and uploading content?
Paris: Doing that ultimately just becomes ridiculous.
Jon: You download a game once, and it is like 60 gigabytes to download, and you think, cool, that will take me maybe 10 or 15 minutes on a reasonably fast connection, but you develop it, you are going to end up uploading a total of maybe a terabyte of content over the course of development. And that rapidly becomes: One, expensive because it is crazy expensive in Australia. And second, slow. And you are waiting waiting.
Paris: It is crazy as it sounds. Like often we have to wait to do like a git push and so we get on the bus to go home, because it is faster to just do it on the laptop on the 4G than it is to do it in the office.
Tim: It is on the way to the old thing about a station wagon ____23:05 tremendous bandwidth?
Jon: Yeah. I am right now awaiting the delivery of a couple of DVDs that are getting shipped to me from the States, just because I think it is going to take so long to arrive.
Tim: The final thing I want to ask you is the games world, what do you see five years from now, games have really been in the last five years, seven years, have been recognized as educational tools, and as a form of entertainment that has ramped up tremendously, people are much more aware of it as a business, as an industry, the apps App Store approach has obviously been changed, any paradigm changes you see on the horizon right now?
Paris: I think it will get respected more as an art form. For many reasons I was sad that Roger Ebert died because he had a lot of interesting things to say on the subject of games as art, and he was inspiring a lot of dialogue about that. I hope that dialogue continues regardless because I think games are starting to be recognized as an art form and as they continue to do so, we will only have more interesting discussions about it. I think the game industry now as a whole is just going to get bigger and bigger and it is going to be forced into like the very top end and the very bottom end of very small games.
Jon: I think that we are going to start seeing a lot more integration of games and gameplay in people’s daily lives. The fact that people everywhere these days in most first world countries, are carrying around what’s effectively a supercomputer that has access to the internet. It means that gaming is no longer a thing that was confined to the living room. It is now a thing that you can do anywhere and at any time. And with the number of capabilities that just don’t exist when you are confined to one location. So for example, there is a game made by a friend of us called CodeRunner that exists almost exclusively as an audio and location based game, where this guy is speaking introducing okay, you’ve seen the criminal, he is at this ATM, and they send you to a real world ATM based on maps information. Now you can’t do that if you are still limited to what the old style of games went, so I think this is a trend that we are going to keep seeing.
Tim: There is pressure for these handheld devices to input and output and GPS sometimes.
Jon: Right. You can. A sensor package that it can tie into.
Paris: Another interesting thing that I have been seeing happening a lot lately, more on the geeky sort of niche side, but I think it is going to bigger, boardgames that have a digital counterpart that plays with them, a really simple example might be Zombicide which was a popular Kickstarter board game recently. There is an iPad up for the character sheet, that is really a simple example, but more and more you are seeing games that have like the iPHone or the Android app is the deck of card the player holds and the actual board is sitting in front of them still.
Tim: Any other games you have created any of them using the sensor package that we are carrying around.
Jon: We are in the middle of working on a game that is actually meant to be played inside a museum. It is kind of like an educational type game and the whole goal of it is you are taking photos of exhibits in the museum and linking them to together, and the winner is the team that is able to make the most interesting links. And so we are able to use things like ideally indoor location awareness, and another thing is that only a portable computer is able to receive and keep track of. So yeah, there are a number of interesting things that are on our horizon.
Tim: ____26:27 said something yesterday disparaging about the term gamification.
Paris: I think the gamification, the term is fine, I think it is a great term, but it is being ruined by these companies and sites slapping badges or points on something and saying there it is gamified, it is a layer that you can stick on top of
Jon: You can’t put games into things, you have to make things into a game.
Paris: Right. This doesn’t work when it is a layer or superficial. The problem with gamification is
Tim: It is not like Clip Art.
Paris: Right. 90 percent of what’s being done is just superficial junk.
Jon: We’ve had more than one client come to us when we weren’t doing some game project, they come and say, can we add achievements to this? We once were working on a game that was about games, it was about, like a game television show, and they said, let’s have achievements for this, sure if he wants to do, but it is not really it won’t really add that much.
Tim: It is sort of like a checkbox?
Jon: Right. People see gamification as ____27:25 says it’s nowhere near as trendy as it was.
Paris: The best way to think about it is to learn how games work, and then when you are doing a design for the next generation, whatever else you want to have gamification, remember what you learnt about how games and incorporate that into the design. Rather than just bolting something on, but otherwise it just feels like a strange mish mash of things.
Jon: Yeah, if the game’s rules are, when you do a thing, you get a point. That is not a fun game. You have to think about what interesting things can come out of intersecting rules.
Paris: A better example of this is Four Square points, is being able to figure out what they do, because I had them. And they would be slowly deemphasizing them.
Jon: Yeah, they’ve realized that people don’t value Four Square because of the fact that you can get 50 points when you check in, they value Four Square because community and tips and also, in some cases, the gamification that it had earlier that is the Meier system is still valuable because it is nice to be recognized as yeah, I do come here often, that’s fun.
Paris: I am an avid Four Square user but I don’t know what the points do.
Tim: What shall we do about our Karma Score system?
Jon: Well I mean, Reddit has this problem right now. Reddit uses – really see karma at least the power users of Reddit see karma as a thing to be accumulated for no real reason. But it is there. And I know that Slashdot used to show them the number of karma points, and that got condemned into I have normal karma and high karma.
Tim: Partly because of what we said about gamification seeming really artificially granular. It isn’t to give people a score, it is to try to
Jon: There is one site though that does points very well. And that’s Stack Overflow. So Stack Overflow their points are reputations, you earn points by giving an answer that someone else marks as yes it has helped me. And then the higher you go in reputation, the more features are unlocked to you. To the point where if you are really good and have really high reputation, then you can do things like you can edit somebody else’s to make it better. Which is a great way to reward people who keep coming back. And also confirms their status. So it feels good and it also improves the community as a whole.
Paris: Actually the game of Virgin Beaches that Slashdot has is one of my favorites. I don’t know why. I have been reading Slashdot since it started and it feels like the way the layer points, it is not so much a layer, it is unobtrusive, and I am going to see the comments that are probably interesting and that is all I care about.
Tim: I am glad to see that overall in the world, there are a lot of places that distributed information is ____29:57.
Paris: It is getting more in your face in many places
Jon: I think people are still figuring out what the best way to do it is. People are trying all different things and that is great. But I think eventually we are going to end up in a situation where people have meaningful gamification, and that’s Oh, I think I’ve just coined a term, but yeah, hopefully.
Tim: Hope that will reach the end of history where everything has been merged.